Revisiting the duty to report suspected child abuse: another case scenario

It is truly remarkable how many standard ethics textbooks present fictional factual scenarios in which the reader is urged to read each scenario and make a decision about whether the facts are enough to warrant a report to a child protective service organization. As it has been noted before, the duty to report is strictly a legal consideration which arises from an analysis of whether the facts as presented set forth a reasonable suspicion that a child has been/is in danger of being abused or neglected. Here’s yet another example of a factual scenario, a version of which appeared in a highly regarded ethics textbook:

Jana, a social worker, has an apartment immediately next to one in which a young woman lives with her two, pre-school aged children. Lately, Jana has observed that the neighbor’s garbage contains nothing except liquor bottles. Recently, Jana rode in the building elevator with the woman and her children and noted that the woman smelled of alcohol and the children’s clothes were dirty. On a recent evening, Jana heard through the wall into the adjoining apartment both children crying and the woman screaming very loudly. The following morning, when Jana observed the whole family in the hallway, she noticed a dark mark on the arm of the four-year-old child which could either have been dirt or a bruise inflicted by the mother.

Is there a duty to report suspected abuse or neglect here? Clearly the specific legal duty to report depends upon whether Jana lives in a state in which the duty is imposed on all members of the public, or just on certain individuals, such as health care professionals and teachers. Secondly, we must assess whether a reasonable suspicion that abuse/neglect has occurred. Reasonable suspicion can be likened to a hunch — a good faith belief founded on some evidence that goes beyond the observer’s own  subjective guesswork. This means that the observer must witness some act or condition, even if ambiguous, that could represent a dangerous situation for children. It is important to remind the reader that this is a legal standard, not an ethical one. In the preceding example, the most problematic element is Jana’s witnessing of the smell of alcohol on her neighbor’s breath while in the presence of her young children. If there is enough evidence here to convince Jana that the woman is drunk while in the presence of her toddlers, the reasonable suspicion test would seem to be satisfied. The other observations seems at best too ambiguous to present or add to a reasonable suspicion that the children are being abused/neglected. Moreover, were Jana living in a state in which the duty to report suspected abuse applies only to health professionals, it seems to make sense nnonetheless to impose this standard on persons who have the training required to assess abuse or neglect, even if the witness’s observations are made during a time in which the person is acting as a private citizen, and not while working at her place of employment.

Blog readers are invited to share their own opinions. Additionally, readers are invited to example this website’s ( discussion of the meaning of the legal standards governing practice in mental health, including the duty to practice reasonably competently.